In Brief: Like an exotic city with an inherent distrust of foreigners, Algiers takes its time to let you in, but it’s an enchanting place once you get to know it.
There are few bands who embody the term “sleeper hit” better than Calexico. There’s a pervasive subtlety to their slightly jazzy, strongly Latin-influenced, and unmistakably Southwestern brand of indie folk. Many of their songs have layers of depth and beauty that aren’t always apparent on the surface – indeed, very few of their songs tend to catch my attention on first listen. Listening to an album of theirs when I’m not in the right headspace for it can quite literally put me to sleep. And yet, when a strong Spanish guitar riff or a piercing horn section or a surprisingly menacing bridge emerges from a song that didn’t seem like much at first, I’m reminded of why I stick around and continue to give this band a chance.
On their latest album, Algiers, the Tucson-based band felt that they needed a change, so they uprooted themselves and set up shop in a church converted into a studio, in a neighborhood of New Orleans that they ended up naming the album after. One might expect this change of venue to come with a bit of stylistic experimentation, perhaps a fair amount of collaboration with local musicians who embody the sound of New Orleans. But that isn’t really the case with Algiers – the sound of the album might allow some Afro-Cuban influences to creep in, but for the most part, it’s still the same “desert noir” genre that they’ve been working with for most of their existence. The lack of guest appearances from outside artists originally makes the album seem less diverse than its predecessor, 2008’s Carried to Dust, which straddled both sides of the border by incorporating guest vocals in both English and Spanish. Algiers feels more focused in comparison, giving each of the multi-instrumentalists in the band a chance to demonstrate their chops on songs that range from lush, laid-back folk music to intense, politically charged Latin rock, but it took me long time to acknowledge that it’s actually a more powerful album than Carried to Dust.
A lot of the reason why it’s easy to miss the beauty of a Calexico song on first listen is due to the core members who are given most of the spotlight – lead singer Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino. These two founded the band together, so it makes sense that they’d continue to be the driving creative forces behind the band. But Burns has a rather tedious habit of singing each song in a hushed, cautious tone as if he’s telling you some sort of an illicit secret. It puts the band in perfect company with other indie artists who have a gift for expressing emotion through subtlety, most notably Iron & Wine (whose collaboration with the band, the In the Reins EP, was actually my introduction to them). But it can get tiring after several songs – rare are the moments when he seems to fully open up and demonstrate the full emotional range of his voice. Convertino is the dependable backbone of most of these songs, with his slinky, syncopated rhythms often being the first thing that stands out about them, but the emphasis on drums and vocals can often make a song feel melodically flat, despite the presence of both acoustic and electric guitars, whose riffs can often seem muted or buried in the mix. When a song gives a tertiary instrument such as a trumpet, a steel guitar, or an accordion, or even another vocalist, the chance to shine, that’s when this album really starts to work its magic. I feel like it takes most of the album’s front half for it to really pick up steam – most of the truly enchanting songs are in the back half.
While the subject matter of several songs isn’t immediately apparent, due to being shrouded in metaphor in most cases, it’s worth noting that due to their hailing from Arizona, the band is rather passionate about the issue of immigration. The intent of Algiers isn’t specifically to get up on a soapbox about it, but a lot of tracks feature immigrants as their protagonists, and the tone of these is universally sympathetic. The band does this not out of some attempt to influence policy, but just to humanize an issue that’s often talked about in terms of raw, unfeeling numbers. This may rub you the wrong way if your views on the issue are more on the conservative side – though honestly you might not have even noticed it if not for my pointing it out, so who knows, it could be a mere blip on the radar. The subject isn’t really a debate that I care to get into, but as someone who likes to analyze songwriting, I appreciate the attempt to place themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what their experiences might be like. Even aside from that political minefield, there’s a pervasive sense of separation anxiety in many of these songs, and the longing expressed in many of them is compelling if you give the words and subtle melodies enough time to sink in. Needless to say, it’s a moody album – not an overtly angry or depressing one, but definitely one that aches for reunions and reconciliations. Slowly realizing how powerfully some of those themes speak to me is what made me realize, however belatedly, that I kind of robbed this one of an Honorable Mention spot when I went over my Top 20 albums at the end of 2012. You just have to pay close attention to keep this one from slipping under your radar.
I’m probably preaching to the choir when I say that “Epic” is an overused word in our society. What once meant “amazing” or “larger than life” now gets applied to every meager accomplishment and embarrassing mishap that’s been captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. So I tend to figure that unless you’re being ironic (and something is decidedly un-epic enough to make your observation actually humorous), you shouldn’t call something “Epic” unless it actually is. This song… is not epic. It’s a good song. It could perhaps be the modest soundtrack to the opening credits of an epic film. But by itself, the well-meaning Latin guitar strumming, the stabs of electric guitar, and the echoed refrains from the horn section, are a bit too controlled to bring the song into truly amazing territory. Restraint is kind of Calexico’s game, and while they hint at an outpouring of passion here as they do in so many of their songs, the song sort of hangs there on its medium-heat tempo and its tentative melody. The lyrics mark the beginning of a journey, sketching an incredibly vague scene that finds a man saying goodbye to the ones he loves and hoping to be met with open arms in some new place where he plans to settle down. His arrival there is one of stealth and subterfuge, so this could possibly depict a border crossing. But I only read that interpretation into this song after hearing others… on its own, it’s rather open-ended.
While more up-tempo, this song has a bad habit of subverting its own melodic qualities, due to the way it leaves the drums and rhythm guitar hanging out there with so little accompaniment. The movement of it is a bit like a train, and sometimes I get caught up in its momentum, but there’s a sense of flatness to it – at least until elements like the horns and vibraphone start filling in more melodic elements later on – that makes the song mildly unappealing at first. Movement is key to the lyrics here, as a man moves from state to state in search of steady employment, all of it sounding like rather thankless gruntwork. Throughout his travels, he remains emotionally unmoored, as the song describes him “Moving on to nowhere… Holding on to no one.”
3. Sinner in the Sea
A little more syncopation starts to creep into Convertino’s drumming here – this is more of a slow, sinister song which almost intentionally allows its eerie melody and lyrics to clash with the sultry sound of the piano, plinking out some sort of a slow, Afro-Cuban-influenced dance rhythm. The Latin elements are a little more crucial to this song’s indentity than the first few, with the horns coming in more strongly during the chorus, and the entire thing playing out as some sort of somber memorial to the many souls lost in transit from Cuba to the United States. Burns describes this dirge as “A piano playing on the ocean floor between Havana and New Orleans”, and while the relationship between these two cities and the countries that they belong to is never mentioned explicitly, one is left with the sense that frosty relations between the two have led to some form of illicit transportation to get around the rules. The most striking element of the song is the organ that comes in during the bridge – what was mildly haunting up to that point becomes outright menacing, as Burns reaches a fever pitch, the drums crash behind him, and the organ holds these sustained, unnerving notes that sound like something left over from the era of psychedelic rock. I can tell that not everyone will appreciate the creepy effect – Algiers is one of those records that I have to turn up to catch the quieter subtleties whenever I play it in the car, and I’ve had it playing twice so far with my wife in the passenger seat, and both times she’s had to turn it down during the bridge of this song. Different strokes, I guess.
4. Fortune Teller
A mellower acoustic song is up ne4xt – perhaps you could call this the album’s first ballad. Burns is filled with softly stated regret here as he recounts an encounter with a fortune teller, comes face-to-face with the dark path that his life has taken, and sort of flinches away from it. We’re not given much detail beyond that – several verses sketch around the outskirts of the story, but the full tale is never really told. A ghostly “Ooh” with a vaguely compelling melody serves as a refrain here, and most of the band keeps it quiet, sticking to entirely acoustic instruments and soft drums. Bits and pieces of this one are compelling, but for the most part I feel like this song plays it way too safe.
While “Sinner in the Sea” was quite obviously a song about a place deep underwater, this song actually has a “watery” sort of mood to it – it’s there in the swirly, slow-moving electric guitar melody that sets up a sort of tension that is never quite released. This is one of a few moments where I don’t mind Burns’ whispery approach so much, because it seems to depict a couple pushing each other away in slow motion, honing in on the exact awkward moment when they realize they don’t feel right being close to each other. This very personal story is met by the really odd buildup of the chorus, which finds the horns and strings ratcheting up the tension as he sadly croons, “Take it down, take it all the way down below the waterline.” I’m not exactly sure what that means in relation to this misfired romance, but the imagery of someone or something getting buried in a watery grave sure is haunting.
Without slighting any of the interesting lyrics heard so far, or Joey Burns as a lead vocalist, I simply have to point out that the instrumental title track is my favorite moment on the record thus far. Freed from the baggage of having a story to tell, this one simply uses a meek acoustic guitar melody, backed by an accordion, to paint pictures of life in a sleepy Western town. Algiers may not be that town in real life, for all I know – the mood I get from this one still seems more “desert” than “bayou”, though there might be a tinge of Mid-East mysticism in the melody, unless I’m just imagining things. Convertino backs up the lonely little melody with an enticing little shuffle on the drums, and at a few points he scales it back to just the subtle clip-clopping of what I like to imagine are horse’s hooves, as if a wandering cowboy had just rode into some tiny town, tired and in need of a simple meal, a nice tall beer, and a bed. But, before he can pull down the brim of his hat and get some shuteye, there’s ADVENTURE! to be had, in the form of an electric guitar refrain that crops up a few times, completely changing the character of the song, as if some banditos had suddenly dropped by to rob the place. I realize I’m just making a bunch of crap up here, but I figure the sign of a good instrumental track is that it conjures up that sort of vivid imagery, rather than just sounding like a group of musicians showing off for no reason.
7. Maybe on Monday
So, are you familiar with the whole trope in which the writer tries to write a love song, and the entire song is basically full of reasons why he can’t or won’t do it? It’s the sort of thing that I thought was clever the first few times I heard it, now it usually just strikes me as a lazy way to patch up an actual attempt at a love song that wasn’t quite coming together. I was determined not to like this one due to how it starts off with this trope, particularly since Burns has sort of a lame excuse for why he stopped writing: “Well the pen stopped and the paper flew out the window/And the notes rang down the road.” So, really? You can’t just grab another pen and another piece of paper, and keep trying? Or, I don’t know, use a laptop or something? The song sort of redeems itself as he imagines where the unfinished song ended up as the harsh wind blows it all over the landscape – sort of a creative approach to what would otherwise be a cliche. But the more traditional folk/rock instrumentation here seems to rob the band of its usual distinct flavoring, and as much as I like the call and response of “Say a little goodbye (say goodbye!) to your love (to your love!)” in the chorus, it sounds like Burns singing both parts, which baffles me because band does happen to have another vocalist handy, who up until this point has been sorely under-utilized.
The album’s most sinister song is also its densest, both in terms of lyrics and instrumentation. Burns has a whole history lesson to get through here, it seems, though he does so in his usual impressionistic fashion, jumping back and forth between the plight of modern immigrants working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and the European conquest several centuries ago that led to unpleasant culture clashes which are still playing out today. Trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela contributes a few Spanish vocals here, as the verse leads into the chorus, and it’s there that the drums start to pick up speed and the chorus seems to almost runaway with itself. Some truly enchanting Spanish guitar melodies run throughout this one, and there’s a richness to the minor chords here that doesn’t seem as pronounced on most of the other songs. (Also? This may be the only time I’ve ever heard a songwriter use the word “Quetzalcoatl” in a song. Bonus points for that.) I can’t pretend to untangle everything that this song is about, but there’s no denying the intense anger behind its louder moments, when the horns are blurting away and the vocals are at their most menacing. This is similar to the sort of musical territory that DeVotchKa won me over with a few years ago, and I have to admit, I’d love to hear a collaboration between members of the two bands someday.
9. Better and Better
This one has a sort of “windswept emptiness” to it that seems similar to “Fortune Teller” at first, though here, I’m a little more captivated by the Spanish guitar plucking away, which is the dominant instrument for most of the song. Most of the band backs off here to let just the voice and guitar shine, and at first it’s a bit jarring having such a dense song right up next to such an empty one, but there’s a tranquil beauty to it all the same. The lyrics express sympathy for an overworked woman, seemingly blown about by the wind to states as far-flung as Idaho and the Carolinas in search of a decent paycheck, but throughout the song a difficult question keeps coming up, as she looks at pictures of her loved ones and hopes she’s doing the right thing to provide for them – “Is is better than staying back home?” Burns sings this with such a soft, mournful tone that it sounds much less like an accusation and more like a question he genuinely doesn’t know the answer to.
10. No Te Vayas
Jacob gets an entire song to himself here, and just like “Inspiración” from the last album, it’s all in Spanish. Unlike that song, it’s not a duet – which wouldn’t be fitting given this album’s ongoing theme of separation, anyway. Over a jazzy piano riff and the slow, steady call of mariachi trumpets, Jacob wonders why a lover is leaving him without so much as a kiss goodbye. This is the sort of thing that would seem almost too plain-spoken to be terribly romantic if one were to read an English translation, and maybe it’s just the fact that I only barely understand enough Spanish to sort of make sense of it, but it’s one of those situations where the foreign language makes it sound a heck of a lot sexier. Jacob’s got a much fuller-bodied voice than Joey Burns, which also helps to set this one apart in a major way. I find myself wanting to take a long, leisurely drive out to the desert when the warm, reddish-orange hues of this song come seeping through the speakers. The rich musical colors help to offset the admittedly mushy sentimentality of it, and it makes me wish that the band would rotate lead and/or guest vocalists more often, because doing so adds variety and authenticity to the band’s sound.
Given what I just said about the previous song, and how much I think its blatantly South-of-the-border sound adds to the album, it may seem odd that I am also quite infatuated with this gentle folk song, which is decidedly North of the border, shedding all Latin influences and just focusing on the simplicity of an acoustic guitar picking out a gentle but surprisingly fluid melody, drenching the album in an unexpectedly peaceful aura as it winds down. I think of a lazy day spent wandering along the shore of a babbling brook when I hear this one, and as Burns sings his reassuring lyrics, there’s a sense of finally arriving at a peaceful place after a journey fraught with hardship. Light percussion and a bit of steel guitar ambiance put a hint of country influence in the background, but for the most part it’s just an elegant lullaby. I would have not minded ending the record on this one at all.
12. The Vanishing Mind
Alas, the record ends on a weaker song – though arguably, it does so with a mood and style that is more appropriate as the final word on a Calexico album than “Hush” would have been. It’s also more definitive in its approach than the bizarrely sparse “Contention City” was on their previous album, merging a sun-drenched country ballad with the occasional sting of the Latin-tinged horn section, for a more ideal balance of Southern and Western sounds. We’re back in “dark secret” mode as Burns quite nearly whispers about the unraveling memories of a slowly aging mind – presumably a life that the sun is setting on for good. As with many songs on the album, it’s tragic yet sympathetic, not quite rising to the same level of intense melancholy that some of the better songs on Algiers did, but coming to a climax in its own understated way. To me, it feels like a bit of a postscript, thought not an overly bothersome one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sinner in the Sea $1.25
Fortune Teller $.50
Maybe on Monday $.50
Better and Better $.75
No Te Vayas $1.75
The Vanishing Mind $.50
Joey Burns: Lead vocals, guitars, bass, cello, piano, keyboards, accordion, percussion, vibraphone
John Convertino: Drums, percussion, piano, vibraphone
Paul Niehaus: Acoustic, electric and steel guitars
Jacob Valenzuela: Trumpet, keyboards, vibraphone, vocals
Martin Wenk: Trumpet, guitar, keyboards, accordion, glockenspiel, vibraphone
Volker Zander: Upright and electric bass.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.